Is This Really The City and Citizen of the Future?

POSTED BY   James Dearsley
31st October 2017

Setting up TDMB, I wanted to work with the best people and their geographic base didn’t matter. Therefore we run a remote set up and meet up once a week. Yesterday was one of those days and arguably the largest news in city design and the philosophical debate around robotics and their humanisation was the topic of conversation. Rather highbrow for us to be honest but it was stimulating to say the least.

It wasn’t long ago that I was raving about Google’s decision to “build a city from the internet up” with them taking over a barren 12-acre plot just outside of Toronto. Imagine my astonishment when I heard about the Saudi Arabian government’s decision to build a 26,500km2 city, four times the size of Dubai (4,114 sq/km), Beirut (200 sq/km), Cairo (528 sq/km), and Amman (1,680 sq/km) combined, and independently from the “existing governmental framework” with investors consulted at every step during development.

What I find particularly interesting about some of these statements – irrespective of my general attitude to this idea, as you will see later, is that this is a pretty big statement from the government to commit such resources. “Neom is a totally different story,” the Prince says. “There’s a commitment from the government; we’re putting our name on the first line.”

A quite significant statement from a government that is only now beginning to relax its attitude to women driving – on this matter, in particular, I do find it fascinating that much of the PR around this project, other than the sheer size of the operation, is around a seemingly female robot called Sophia. Slightly ironic perhaps given their obvious opinions of women? More on Sophia later.

The interesting part is that this is all due to the new leader’s (he was put in power by the deposing of his cousin earlier this year) objective around “Vision 2030”. As part of this Neom is set to challenge 9 sectors of growth for the economy and also is looking to set 6 pillars which will define their output:


Sector targets to drive growth 6 pillars of Neom Foundation
The Future of energy and water To provide next generations with health and transport facilities
The Future of biotech E-Government
The Future of food Digitilisation
The Future of mobility Sustainability
The Future of advanced manufacturing Innovation in Construction
The Future of media and media production
The Future of entertainment

There is no doubt that this concept is interesting for me, as a futurist, in the area of how we will be living, but this does all seem rather far-fetched. Indeed the Prince himself states “dreaming is easy, achieving is difficult”.

However, let’s have these moon shots and see where we get to. There is no doubt, with Saudi Arabia preparing for a future without oil, it makes sense to be planning such exciting projects to fill the void but just throwing cash around is one thing. Societal change is another.

The video used to promote the project is quite something. The very nature of Saudi Arabian culture and regulation is questioned and almost put on trial.

Indeed you only need to look at the comments on this video to realise they have a challenge here.


Anyway, a city of this size, built from nothing, literally nothing, will be a fascinating undertaking, whatever it turns out to be. There is no doubt this will only accelerate the discussion around Smart Cities and utilising technology to bring a more connected society.

But this is it isn’t it. The irony that behind the ability and ambition to bring greater benefits to society, the huge PR machine around this city is as much about the project as it is about the machines that will form the backbone of its delivery.

Sophia the Robot

In all our work here and helping robotics firms with marketing, I find it interesting they have signed up with Hanson Robotics and their Sophia robot. There is no question that there are more advanced robots out there but Sophia is most definitely the most comfortable on the eye currently. “She” is the ultimate humanoid and perhaps is the reason why this is deemed acceptable by the Saudi Arabian government.

Our discussions in the office centred around whether she could be considered for “citizenship” – ultimately defined as “the position or status of being a citizen of a particular country”. Is “she” a citizen? That would be the topic of an entirely different discussion and a far longer post.

However, what we did agree on is that it was a fabulous opportunity for PR. In my theory of tech deployment, I argue that you need a period of PR before you get widespread innovation – a sweetspot where an industry, technology, and end users all understand and accept the technology being discussed and work together for greater benefits.

Whilst I believe it to be great PR and I completely get behind the promotion of what could be an incredible project, I do question whether this sort of exercise will come back and bite them somewhere they don’t want to be bitten.

There are all sorts of human rights questions here but maybe that is the point. Are they not bothered by human rights anymore as they have humanoids to consider?

Further reading on the topic:

Is This Really The City and Citizen of the Future?

James Dearsley

James Dearsley is the Founder and MD of TDMB. In addition to his work with us, he is also a renowned expert in PropTech, and was recently voted the most influential person in PropTech. An impassioned speaker and advocate of technology, particularly in the Property industry, his other interests include beekeeping, real ale, green trousers, and (currently) growing a beard. You can contact James directly via Twitter or LinkedIn, or tweet the TDMB team directly.

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